Category Archives: review

Of Otherness

April Biggs’s new dance work, Of Otherness, which debuted earlier this month in Columbus, is deeply, viscerally uncomfortable. As I watch the five dancers stagger, cling, kiss, buckle and crawl around the space my chest tightens, and my fists clench around a word that I would rather shove back down into safety and silence. I do not dare let my breath out – fearing that a whisper of that word would be enough to out me from my place in the audience and shatter the taut space from which this dance emerges. That word is “Yes.”

In the black box of the theater the white screen door hanging above the space looms large in our vision. Darkness and light, opacity and transparency are echoed in the dancers’ costumes, designed by Kat Sauma: white shirts with black borders and ornamentation, splitting along spines and shoulders to reveal dark mesh underneath. The piece begins together – the dancers exploring their skin, the space, the time of their movement in a slightly desperate search for… what? One by one they are caught in curiosity, only to rejoin the group a moment later. Kathryn Nusa Logan sits cross-legged downstage on a white rug, filling the space with resonant, almost percussive strikes of her guitar.

As the piece progresses the movement becomes more and more disparate, interspersed with long solo sections; Kat Sprudz’s early solo in particular has a quiet hunger as she seeks through the space. The dancers work out over time how to interact to individual voices through observation, echoing, shadowing and support. There are also more troubling interventions – Ashlee Daniels Taylor is held in the air by the cast as she sobs and struggles to get down. Released at last she gasps and whimpers in paroxysms of pain as the rest of the cast watches impassively.

The first kiss, when it happens, is so soft and still as to be almost lost in the upstage shadows. Holding a white sheet between them, Biggs and Taylor kiss through the fabric, showing simultaneously the desperate need for, and ultimate impossibility of, connection without compromise. The sheet calls to mind Puritan nightgowns and queer anonymity: the danger of touch overcome by human desire. Later kisses push those boundaries further, couples dancing as their lips remain entwined through the fabric, their limbs flailing into space as they struggle to move without breaking contact.

There are undercurrents to this piece that I do not understand. The use of projections in particular defeats my attempts at reading: Lesly Gore singing You Don’t Own Me, and family footage of children in a paddling pool, splashing, playing, and calling to their father. I am being told something—but like the dancers behind the sheet I can only touch the edges of meaning, connect to what is within my cultural understanding, even as I know that other signs are passing me by.

I suspect that other audience members who perhaps understand these visual signs might be similarly perturbed when the broken strains of Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Swan come floating and distorted through the space. The music forms a backdrop to an extended solo by Meledi Montano that both sings exquisitely through the phrases of the music and mirrors the spasmodic jerks of the shadowy reverberations. Montano’s movements begin with tender clarity, before speeding up and hyperbolizing, breaking the lines of her torso as she struggles to exaggerate even further. Despite a fall and collapse she returns to master the struggle, finding space, speed, and weight in her dancing. When she leaves the space she does so with breadth and purpose, sweeping up the rest of the cast as she goes.

Of Otherness ends with a return to its beginnings, with a musical and choreographic repeat of its early spatial and tactile explorations, a choice that to me is both smart and deeply satisfying. It seems trite to say that the piece explores ways of coming together and living in spite of difference and struggle, but Of Otherness offers the true complexity that such a project implies: never making the easy choice, never giving us anything simply, never letting us resolve our feelings into an answer. The piece baffles, drawing you in even as you fail to comprehend your compulsion to keep watching, moving you in a way that defies clear words. I am privileged to have been asked to review this work, enabling me to watch it repeatedly, and still I can only come back over and over again to my initial, gut-felt response.

Yes.

Advertisements

Flying Color: OSU Dance Faculty Concert

Last night I attended the OSU Dance Department’s sold-out Faculty Concert – a wonderful opportunity for students to enjoy the choreographic identities of the professionals they learn from. A faculty concert speaks to the tone of a department and the projects surfacing within it. At OSU this weekend we see an attention to physical and performative integrity, respect for tradition and ongoingness,* celebrations of multiplicity, and a dedication to art that is beautiful, meaningful, and communal.

Mitchell Rose’s A Primer in Contemporary Choreographic Iconography is a perfect show-opener: tongue-in-cheek, the piece delivers an astute analysis of postmodern choreographic sensibilities, and a deft performance of the same. Flirting with cliché but never vapid, Josh Anderson and Gina Hoch-Stall bring their masterful sense of performance and timing to this restaging. The piece works extremely well in the intimate setting of the OSU Barnett Theater, which allows the audience to delight in the richness and layering of detail. As Hoch-Stall falls to the floor “willed dead” by Anderson, Anderson’s eyes dart sneakily from one side to the other, subverting the melodrama of his stated intention in a playful “who, me?” Smart, ironic, a knowing nod to aficionados and newer attendees alike.

An Answerless Riddle by Eddie Taketa takes full advantage of the musical score by John Adams, pushing the dancers through an orchestral journey from airy virtuosity to wire-taught tenderness to flashing fire. Taketa’s breathtaking contrapuntal landscape is a complex sea the dancers navigate with confidence and flare. Kathryn Sauma’s lyrical ease subtly shapes the flow of the piece, and Marissa Ajamian strikes sparks, especially in the latter sections. All of the dancers should be praised for their fullness of line under pressure, and command of the music.

The last work before the intermission was the first work I have had the pleasure of seeing by new faculty member Crystal Michelle Perkins. The Difficulties of Flying is an essay in crystalline clarity, drawing on African American folklore in its exploration of wandering and homecoming. Sculptural unison binds the performers together, woven through by daring soloists who contrast the luscious string score with rapid shifts of weight, limb, and flow. Steve Reich’s Clapping Music closes out the piece perfectly, its drive and gravitational pulse harmonizing with the dancing and calling it forward into the infinite. As the cast circles Danielle Kfoury’s outpouring of circular energy the lights fade, but in our minds the dance continues.

From a new choreographer to one I always look forward to seeing: Ann Sofie Clemmensen’s work is consistently intelligent, structurally designed, a treat for the audience and for the bodies moving through it. Color in the Dark is no different, channeling kinetic precision and group identity into a striking investigation of presence, absence, the invisible and the seen. The cast brings a resonant physical and emotional maturity to the work: Danielle Barker standing still as the stage vibrates around her, fists to eyes, is one of the most memorable images of the night. The dancers throw themselves at the floor and each other, chaos translating seamlessly into order and back again.

The concert ends on a lighter note, beginning with Reverb by Daniel Roberts, a playful quartet inspired by Lukas Ligeti’s polyrhythmic “bending” of Shaking, by Merideth Monk. After three large-group works, the four dancers in pale light feel like a breath taken into the space, their nibbling runs and angular lines are geometric sparklers brightening up the stage. The four alight into their extensions with ease and levity, their interactions gentle, yet direct – here is an elite approach to elongated, linear technique at its finest… and at its kindest too. Paige St. John tips into a handstand and her two companions scurry her in a tight circle – a highlight moment among many, warmly welcoming us into the abstract. Special mention must be made for Jing Dian, newly stepping into her role in this restaging of the work.

The final work of the night, SISTERS by Dave Covey, is an unabashedly joyful treat, the audience laughing, clapping along, breathless and exuberant. The trompe-l’oeil of the set design is a triumph: cascading lines of light pour in arcs cross the space, transforming the black box into a fireworks display. The sure and sophisticated hand of co-director Bita Bell can be detected in the improvisation score that lives within, and yet is never overshadowed by this polychromatic wonderland. The cast are utterly together, in play and solidarity, each coming to the work in her own way – Jazelynn Goudy’s heart-pounding entrance in particular is fabulous – and spectacular as a whole. You will leave singing.

 

Photo Credit: Chris Summers

 

* A turn of phrase I owe to Janet Schroeder

 

The Linen Closet – And Other Collections

When I opened my program to write about Susan Petry’s new work: “The Linen Closet – and Other Collections” I found a perfectly preserved rose petal. Lush tactility, an evocative scent, and a little bit of magic… it was a perfect memento of the performance, which I urge you to go and see.

“The Linen Closet” explores fabric; it’s symbolic, cultural and historical warp and weft in the United States. It is a work of metamorphosis: a comforter becomes a play space, a lover, a child; the gestures of pattern cutting become a protest at the deep inequalities of children’s and women’s labour conditions. From the moment we walk into the theatre we are asked to immerse ourselves to the elbows in texture, pattern, repetition, detail, stacking and sorting, and the futility of attempting to categorise the riches draped before us. Petry transforms over the course of the performance to match her subject, flirting with kitsch and camp, simultaneously tongue in cheek and deeply sincere. For me the highlight was the vignette of a needle-eyed, voguing catwalk model, fierce and powerful, who exposes the urgency underpinning the soft surfaces of the work. History with a critical eye; domesticity with a bite; silk and chiffon as agents of change.

In “The Gift Project” Petry embodies the work and person of five different choreographers. As in “The Linen Closet” she makes light of the virtuosity required by her project, showing us the preparation and change from one body to another. The delight of seeing old friends in a new physicality, and five very different works approached with love and commitment is a breath of fresh air in an artistic and political climate where difference and diversion is often so divisive. The sole odd note of the evening occurs as Petry becomes a hip-hop performer for her final gifting: a good portion of the audience sniggers, breaking the generous suspension of disbelief that has been the tone of the work so far. Petry has to work hard to convince them that “no, really, I am genuinely embodying this presence.” She succeeds – totally and completely – but departs the state leaving me with questions in her wake.

The final work of the evening, “O Mortal” is breathtaking. A study in clarity and control, we see Petry as herself, finally, present and essential. Around her lies a ring of donated garments, and she moves through an introspective series of progressions to become the ever-flowing center of her own multiplicity. Together, the three works form a rich investigation into that which we put onto our skin and bodies: clothes, identities, and movement. We are asked to see and to witness, clearly and with love, who we are, and how we can choose to become.

 

Review: Commissioned Works

Apologies everyone, it’s been a long time since you heard from the headtail connection. I have a number of new posts in process: a summary of the response to my last post, a review of the Congress on Research in Dance conference in Athens, a look at a recent dance and disability case to name but a few… but it seems apt that I should start off by putting my money where my mouth was, and reviewing the graduating year at TrinityLaban in their program of newly commissioned works.

Lea Anderson opens the show with FLICK – a danced reconstruction of four works for film. As always Anderson manages to be bang on trend without ever resorting to the ennui of stereotype: her lime-green androgynes dance themselves and the camera, panning, tilting and layering through club dance and the American moderns. Long-term collaborator Steve Blake plunges us deep into electronica, and the dancers rise to the beat in dynamic and geometric unison. A rather abrupt ending leaves us guessing, rather than satisfied.

From behind the camera a people’s yell of “TAKE RESPONSIBILITY” begins Matthias Sperling’s new work: 17 Manifestos Manifested. Proposed as a graduation celebration come life-plan, from the audience it looks like a savvy expression of political illegibility. Manifestos cross and overlap, some realised with delightful literality, some obscured in the abstract of post-modern improvisation. Ingvild Marstein lies splayed on the floor giving love to the environment, while around her dancers attempt to “call your mum,” “make art with responsibility,” and “be patient.” It’s a great and funny game, although the point is somewhat lost when it all resolves into harmonious unison in defiance of real-world experience. Hope for the future maybe?

Stephanie Schober adds to the playful atmosphere of the first half, with getting-to-know you games, acrobatics and flying sheets of paper. At its best, the work has an easy legibility of movement and rhythm, although to my mind it itches for a gallery transplant and time to really explore itself. Schober deserves credit for her easy handling of such a large cast, drawing on the creative potential of hiding and revealing, while giving us plenty of new ideas to mess around with.

Pools of light and stillness characterise Charles Linehan’s work, and A Quarter Plus Green is no exception. Among the five works featured this one alone “does” gender: male and female bodies falling into partnered pairs just too often for coincidence, but is noticeable only because no-one else tonight is doing it. Pairs overlap, shift and merge, the dancers twisting, falling and never quite coming to an accommodation with themselves or each other. Strange shapes tease from just outside the light, and while the dancing is mature and sophisticated, it makes an uneasy conclusion as a night as a whole…

…Which is why I’m finishing my review with Forest for Little Man: Homage to Tarkovsky by Marie-Gabrielle Roti, for me the stand-out work of the evening. Rotie’s work draws on Butoh practices, and the dancers show tremendous commitment to the unfamiliar aesthetic demands. The work shifts geologically, and you are in constant dancer of losing yourself in one moment while others evolve unseen around you. Lighting by Genevieve Giron adds another layer of art to this dream of a landscape landscape. The first sweep of the dancers to a tremulous forest is breathtaking; the slow fade upstage will break your heart. The final tableau shivers and strives without coming to rest, but finally providing the ending I’ve been looking for all night… and as the curtain comes down I remember to breathe again.

I’m tempted to look at the whole night as a reflection on the state of British dance, but more importantly I want to congratulate this year’s graduates, who can look back on their achievements and greet the professional world with pride. They’ve got style, they’ve got moves, they’ve got commitment and they know how to move you and how to rock. Their dance is big, it’s open, it’s generous, it’s artistic… and despite my love of closure, it’s definitely not done.

Commissioned Works runs tonight at the Bonnie Bird Theatre in Greenwich. More information and tickets at: http://www.trinitylaban.ac.uk/whats-on/dance-events/dance-showcases-0

Events between a place and candy: Two reviews of spring in New York

“Event,” Robert Swinston and Compagnie CNDC Angers

It begins with a ripple of silk. Thirty or so panels in white, brown, pink yellow and red tossed out into the air as if an unseen dancer had suddenly run behind.

Perhaps, in that moment, much of what needs to be said about Merce Cunningham’s work has already been said: elegant, random, playful and vivid – evocation without signification. And the dance is just beginning.

Initially I was wary of Robert Swinston’s Event at the Joyce, a combine of various Cunningham repertory works on the Compagnie CNDC-Angers, or at least I went with my reconstructionist head on and a lot of questions to ask. What was he trying to do? Was this a Merce Cunningham work or a Robert Swinston? To what extent would he play on the (to my mind) very particular performance circumstances implied in the combination of “Cunningham” and “Event” in the same program?

The silk, to some extent, put my mind at rest, as did the sumptuous score emanating from John King and Gelsey Bell, tucked into the bottom left corner of the auditorium. The music existed, a crystalline thing of its own, creating synchronous moments with the movement of the stage and yet never narrating, or making the textual experience overly rich. And still, the dance is just beginning.

The eight dancers slowly form a diagonal line across the stage, rising to demi-point as they join hands to arrive en tableau. The opening of the piece says “duets” perhaps too loudly for my taste – with an emphasis on paired relationships and partnering, and more than a passing focus on centre stage. Several sequences are screamingly slow, while others sneak into virtuosity even as you admire the ease of their flow.

But over time, everything relaxes. Solos and group sections flourish in counterpoint, the technique and the dance settle more softly into each other. This is the repertoire of Cunningham’s I best enjoy: the play within the smaller things, the trio with linked arms who gallop and jump in parallel around the space like children, without at all becoming childish. I am particularly drawn to Flora Rogeboz, whose timing has both a softness and a surety, and who cannot help but smile as she yet again arrives to make the connection to her partner just so.

It is not an uncommon practice to take sections of Cunningham pieces and make of them something other, the wonderful Bride and the Batchelor’s exhibition played on a similar theme in London’s Barbican, but Event succeeds uniquely in being a work, and the works, and the work simultaneously. It is watchable in and of itself; to those in on the joke the individual pieces of repertoire come smiling to the light; the whole reassures you that the project of Cunningham, and Swinston, is out there, alive and well.

The silk panels by Jackie Matisse blow over Anna Chirescu in a delightfully unchoreographed moment of interaction. The dancers fill the space, prehensile feet flicking the floor, grasping it to bounce rhythmically in fourth position, the lights go out… and yet the dance is just beginning?

“between a place and candy: new works in pattern + repetition + motif.” Is a new exhibition at 1285 Avenue of the Americas, curated by Jason Andrew and organized by Norte Maar. The title comes from a poem by Gertrude Stein, who sought in her prose to “articulate a conscious presence where writing recreates itself anew in each successive moment.” …I must confess that for weeks I have been calling the exhibit “between my brain and candy,” so I excited was I by the number of elements in the event description that promised to render the experience absolutely delicious.

I was not disappointed. While individually distinctive, each work deeply explores some facet of pattern, repetition and/or motif, bringing an harmonious sense of curiosity to the collection. Resonant is the impression that pattern is both natural and human, micro and macrocosmic, its investigation fruitful, rich and yet strikingly simple. Mary Judge’s Bacio takes inspiration from decorative architectural motifs to bring us geometric flowers with the aged patina of stone, while Kerry Law’s Empire State Building Series draws back and watches a single building over time, using the stability of architectural repetition to track an ever-changing perception of the New York sky.

Many of the pieces have a vibrant kinetic energy, frequently through the play of optical illusion: the simplest of patterns, such as Joan Witek’s Massai confounding our mind’s attempt to render them static and comprehensible. Meanwhile the work that is most conceptually movement-oriented, Julia Gleich’s Combinatorics: a study of infinite or countable discrete structures becomes a meditative contemplation of atomic space, and the variation in cellular replication: a dancer’s feet tracing pathways like electrons around a nucleus, the gesture at once always the same and yet never duplicated.

I was gratified to see textiles emerging as a theme within the selection of works. While obviously generative, practices of knitting, weaving etc have only recently begun to be deemed creative, and their inclusion in several pieces added another layer of repetition to the overall design. Fiber arts, with their cultural link to the feminine, offer a hint of transgression to fine art practices, a challenge to the hierarchy of the traditional gallery; in this exhibition we do not forget that the canvas itself is an act of pattern.

The public opening of “between a place and candy” was bustling, making it hard to get as up-close and personal with some of the works as I’d have liked. My personal favourite, Libby Hartle’s Untitled #21 (Arrow) requires a close in viewing to truly appreciate the finesse with which graphite shading has been applied to create the concentric diamonds of the collage – I urge the viewer to take the time to find the units of the pattern, and consider them as individuals even as each work is enjoyed as a whole. In my mind the gallery becomes a living dialogue with the artworks: people stepping in and away, moving on to repeat the motif, recreating the experience of the works anew in each moment of changing space, between this place and candy.

Exhibition runs through June 12th 2015 at 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery